Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev are the recipients of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for their translation of Arseny Tarkovsky’s poems in I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky, which launches into English a major Russian poet little-known in the West. Tarkovsky now joins the ranks of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Brodsky. Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev’s translations—succinct and allusive, stingingly direct and yet sweeping, mournful and celebratory—are marvels. Read Metres’s essay on translating I Burned at the Feast here.
Under the yoke of bad luck
I’ve become helpless, brittle, and hard.
For the last time you speak of lust.
Not lust. It’s grief that torments us.
The shrieking pledges of a prophet
won’t remake a world torn apart.
What’s the point of ringing bracelets, or tears,
with the wind of graves in our ears?
The hurricane of fated battle
drowns out all promises. Words fail.
You’re a momentary ghost, I’m not immortal.
There’s nothing left: neither shelter nor peace,
nor an angel over the starless abyss,
and you’re alone, alone in the universe.
November 7, 1941
I’m piling up lines of firewood altars
to thaw your icy glare,
Kama, my river.
My beauty, show us what makes the Tartars brag.
From sharpened knives to sunken barges.
I drawl like a local, I wail for death, boil some swill,
and haul around my prison barrow, cursing at will.
With the loaders and drivers, I’ll drink your draughts.
I’ll fall from a creaky board to your black depths.
Kama, Kama, how can I pay
for your frozen brocade?
I’d pay with my death.
November 15, 1941
In anger you punish unbearably, Lord,
and I freeze beneath your breath,
you dissect with an icy sword
my defenseless human flesh.
On Judgment Day, as night falls,
the blizzard-angel hammers apart
my fingers, kisses my eyes, blows
a trumpet in my ears, palls me in snow.
I cannot breathe beneath your foot.
I’m drunk on your torture—your wine.
Who am I, before you, O Lord?
Sebastian, thy servant, Sebastian.
November 18, 1941
You ran, choking, until you fell.
Your gold-domed city burning down,
your bloody handkerchief crumpled,
you waste away, sick, in the snow.
I’m not jealous of my enemy,
not afraid of your notoriety.
Curse me, torture me, but my God,
I can’t love you just because you hurt.
No fowlers spread out their nets; the very air
was like a net at the hour of your death.
The water of life had fled the earth.
If God could not save you from the grave,
how could I? How could I fall in love?
Wake up. Come back. I’m dying of grief.
November 28, 1941
I call, but Marina does not reply. She sleeps today
so soundly in Yelabuga. Yelabuga, cemetery clay,
You should be called a god-forgotten bog.
At your name, like a bolt, the gates should be locked.
Yelabuga, you’d have no trouble scaring orphans.
Swindlers and robbers should lie in your coffins.
On whom did you breathe your fierce frost,
becoming her final earthly rest?
Whose swan’s cry did you hear before dawn?
Tsvetaeva’s. You heard Marina’s last word.
I’m freezing in your cemetery wind.
Cursed, spruce-stabbed Yelabuga, give back Marina.
November 28, 1941
The table was turned to light. I lay
my head down like meat on a scale,
my soul throbbing on a thread.
I could see myself from above:
I would have been balanced
by a stout market weight.
in the middle of the snowy shield
pocked along its western side,
in a circle of never-freezing swamps,
forests with fractured legs
and split-skulled railway stations,
their snowy pates blackened
over and again.
On that day,
the clocks stopped, souls of trains
no longer flew along lampless levies,
upon the gray fins of steam;
neither crow weddings nor snowstorms
nor thaws penetrated this limbo
where I lay in disgrace, naked,
in my own blood, outside the future’s
But then the wheel of blinding snow
shifted and began to turn on its axle,
and a wedge of seven planes flew low
over my head, turning back,
and gauze grew hard as tree bark
all over my body, and another’s
blood flowed into my veins, and
I breathed like a fish on sand,
swallowing the hard, mica-flecked,
cold and blessed air.
My lips were covered with sores, and also
I was fed by a spoon, and also
I could not remember my name,
but the language of King David came
alive on my tongue.
even the snow disappeared,
and early spring, rising on tiptoes,
draped her green scarf over the trees.
I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky is forthcoming in 2015 from Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.